CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Heading into the 2019 season, the Pittsburgh Panthers have some questions at a handful of position groups.
Just one returner returns on the offensive line, one starter is back in the linebacker group, and at running back – as it has been noted ad nauseam – the Panthers lost a pair of 1,000-yard rushers.
But last week at ACC Kickoff at the Westin in Charlotte, there was one position cluster that everyone in attendance for Pitt had boatloads of confidence in. Little inquiries were made about the reliability and durability of this particular gang.
Pitt’s defensive backs might be the group that has the least amount of questions attached to it and it’s a core that the Panthers are expecting to be a strength this season.
“I think we’re coming along pretty strong,” senior corner Dane Jackson said. “There’s a lot of buzz out there about us, but we’re not really focused on that. Our starters are strong, but we also have those backups who, in my opinion, can start anywhere else in the country. I think that pushes the starters to go harder.”
Last year, Pitt ranked in the top 50 of FBS in passing completions, percentage and yards allowed per-game, and ranked 32nd in passing first downs allowed, a mark that was fourth best in the ACC.
Jackson was second in the ACC — and 14th in the country — in passes defended with 14. Jackson also had four forced fumbles, which was also the second most in the conference. He developed a reputation as having a nose for the ball.
In practice, Maurice Ffrench often gets frustrated when he sees Jackson line up across from him.
“Dane is a good corner. Every time we go against each other, nothing but a battle,” Ffrench said. “We compete at a high level. I would say Dane is really smart. His technique is very sound. You really have to work a move on him. If you try to slow down at the top of a route, he knows where you’re breaking. He’s going to be underneath you. If you’re breaking out, he is definitely undercutting it and he will pick a ball. If you’re not a good quarterback, you don’t have a good arm, don’t get it there, Dane will be on that ball.”
Jackson didn’t have an interception last season, but picked off a pair of passes in 2017 and another in 2016. Leading Pitt in the pick department last season was Damar Hamlin and Jason Pinnock, who each had two and are both returning this year.
Hamlin, who also led the team in total tackles last year with 90, will get the starting nod at free safety. Pinnock will take hold of the other corner spot opposite of Jackson. Between the three of them last year were 11 forced turnovers and 24 pass breakups.
And Narduzzi likes to say that he really has three starting cornerbacks, even though the limitations of an old school depth chart won’t allow it to be listed that way. He pointed to junior Damarri Mathis as another key returner that solidifies the group.
“With Jason Pinnock, Dane Jackson and Damarri Mathis, I feel like we have three starters and they’ll go through camp starting,” Narduzzi said. “Those are three really good corners that we can win a lot of football games with.”
Mathis played in every game for Pitt last season, even starting twice against Albany and Syracuse. He racked up 18 tackles, 2.5 tackles for losses and one interception.
Filling the void at strong safety after the graduation of Dennis Briggs is a player that many – including Narduzzi – have high hopes for in Steel Valley High School product Paris Ford.
“Paris Ford has come a long way in a year,” Narduzzi said. “I can’t wait to watch that guy play. He’ll be the baby back there, but he’s a football player.”
Ford, now a redshirt sophomore, was once a highly-touted four star recruit, but has struggled at times to find a niche with the Pitt defense. After sitting out his true freshman season with a redshirt, Ford played in nine games last season, but mostly on special teams and as a reserve corner, where he totaled just five tackles. He’s now back in his preferred role of safety.
“Paris has come a long way.” Jackson said. “I’m so proud of him because he’s changed his focus. When he first came in, everything didn’t go as smooth as he expected. Things were kind of going downhill, but he reversed it quick, became more focused, got stronger in the weight room, changed his mental level in the film room. I’m happy for him.”
Math shows that the average passing offense Pitt faces game-to-game this year won’t be so lethal. Pitt’s opponents this upcoming season passed for a combined average of 214.3 yards per-game last year, a mark that would’ve ranked 82nd in all of FBS.
Still, if Pitt wants to win more games than it did last year, if it wants to capture the Coastal again, it will need its defensive backs to not only be as good as they were in 2018, but to be even better.
Narduzzi is confident that, with a blessing from the football Gods, the Panthers’ DB’s can do that.
“Our secondary can be very salty,” Narduzzi said. “If we stay healthy.”